Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

The Savage FortressThe Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first became acquainted with Sarwat Chadda when I read Devil's Kiss, and I knew he was an author I wanted to follow.  Chadda has switched gears slightly, writing for the MG/Juvenile group with this series, and with a male lead.  He has also set his book in India, I believe that he was drawing in some degree from his own heritage.  With The Savage Fortress, Mr. Chadda has written an involving read quite full of darkness and danger, and incredible heroism at its center.

General Synopsis

Ash Mistry is an English boy of Indian descent.  He gains the opportunity to explore the land of his parents' birth when he goes to stay with his aunt and uncle in India.  Ash doesn't care much for India, despite his romantic hopes. It's hot, dirty, and basic in amenities.  He'd rather be at home in England, with his videogames and his friends.  I could identify with Ash in that I hate being hot and dirty, and the descriptions of India in that sense make me question whether I would enjoy my first experience with it any better than Ash does. However, Ash finds his destiny and comes to life in a way that staying in England never would have provided.

When his uncle gets the opportunity to translate a scroll for the very rich Englishman, Lord Alexander Savage, Ash encounters evils right out of Indian legend and folklore.  For Lord Savage is a wicked magician cursed with immortality in a decaying body, and surrounded by blood-thirsty rakshasa creatures (rakshasa is a general term for demons who can have a variety of animal/human forms).  Ash begs his uncle to have nothing to do with the man and his dark enterprises, but his uncle doesn't believe him.  Ash falls in a deep hole at an archeology site funded by Lord Savage, and pricks his finger on an ancient arrow that connects him to the power of an ancient god, whose power belongs to the wielder of the arrow, which is called an astra. 

Things go downhill from here and tragedy results in Ash and his young sister Lucky being on the run for their lives.  An ancient holy man and his strange companion intervene, and guide Ash closer to his destiny as the wielder of the astra, and the only person who can stand in the way of Lord Savage's wicked intentions.

My Thoughts

Mr. Chadda is definitely in touch with the child part of himself.  He understands that kids want adventure and wonder, but don't always have awareness of what comes along with the fun parts.  Ash is like a stand-in for the thirteen-year-old self of older readers, or the young readers who read this book. It's a case of "Be careful what you wish for."  We can't even know how dark our world is until we face it head on.  Ash encounters things that made my hair stand on end.  And the author is almost gleeful in describing the gore and violence. Not too much for a MG book, although I think the age restriction should be 13 or older, honestly. I could see this book causing nightmares to a younger reader.  I was hesitant to read it late at night, just in case.

There is no lack of adventure and danger, and Ash's character undergoes desired and necessary growth in character.  At the end of his harrowing experience, he is not unchanged.  He realizes that we are accountable for our actions and we do have responsibilities in our lives to do what's right even if it's hard.  While some readers might not be as accepting of the polytheistic elements of this story, I think this content can still be enjoyed as a fiction work, and I would recommend that parents investigate this book before letting their younger children read it. Even though I don't subscribe to the Hindu beliefs, I do think there are some good lessons to be learned about accountability and personal ethics.  As a lover of folklore and mythology, I thought the world-building was fascinating, and Chadda describes India vividly. I felt as though I was there.  He shows a lot of textures in the different peoples in this book, and I think it's good for readers to be exposed to multicultural characters and the diversity of our big, wide world.

Bruce Mann is an excellent narrator.  He utilizes a variety of tones and accents that fit this book very well. I especially liked how he speaks Ash's part.  Ash has a very distinctive way of speaking and he comes to life for me. I liked the kid a lot.  I'm glad my library had this in audio, even if took me ages to finish listening to it (not out of boredom, just time issues).

I'd recommend The Savage Fortress to 13 or older children (with parental approval) and older readers who enjoy MG/Juvenile fiction with folklore. I'm looking forward to more of Ash's adventures.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Slash and Burn by Matt Hilton

Slash and Burn (Joe Hunter, #3)Slash and Burn by Matt Hilton

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I ended up picking up the third book in this series first with Slash and Burn, but it isn't detrimental to read these out of order.  The book is fairly self-contained, and anything you might need to know about Hunter's previous adventures are given as an aside or in short sentences that give an adequate frame of references to readers. So I think it's okay to start here.

Matt Hilton's Joe Hunter series is a good choice for action/adventure fans who like Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Robert Crais' Joe Pike, and the character of John Reese from the television show "Person of Interest".   If it's okay, I will make a few comparisons for readers like myself who can't enough of the tough guys who fight for the defenseless and kick some serious butt and take names (kickbutt artists).

Joe Hunter could probably sit down and have a cup of coffee with the other three characters.  They might even start a "I Don't Take Crap And I Hate Bullies" Club.  Henceforth, this concept will be abbreviated as IDTCAIHB in the rest of the review. In some ways, Joe Hunter also reminds me of Nate Garrett from Steve McHugh's urban fantasy series, in that he is a very lethal man who really doesn't like abusive people who take advantage of innocents.  He seems to be a little more plugged into life than Jack Reacher, but he shares his ability to be brutal when necessary, although he has more of a conscience and feels a bit more regretful when he gets ugly with people.  I think Hunter is much less of a loner than Reacher, and perhaps that is why he is more in touch with his emotions.  I think more than John Reese (also more emotionally healthy). Oh, I should add that if Nate's invited, he'd drink tea, since he hates coffee.

Like most of the members of the IDTCAIHB club, Hunter has few friends and emotional connections.  His besties are Rink and Harvey, both also tough as nails who have his back in a fight.  I think it made it more realistic that Hunter did need help.  He didn't come off as a superhero.  He's vulnerable to all the things that affect most human beings, and he doesn't have any super-skills that inhibits a reader's ability to suspend disbelief.  I like that he does have ethics/morals.  They are more extreme in that he believes he's responsible for righting wrongs and dealing with injustice, not the police, since the police often fail to do what needs doing (his thoughts, not necessarily mine). Somewhat like Batman, but with more willingness to kill.  While I am not advocating vigilantism, I can understand the reasons behind it (at least in fiction), and I admit that I am drawn to these types of characters who are there to help people and don't mind getting their hands dirty doing it.  It satisfies that part of me that gets angry when I see gross injustice in society around me, although my personal ethics don't agree with an eye for an eye kind of justice. Fiction is a safe exploration of themes and concepts we don't condone or espouse in life, or so I think.

I could only give this book 3.5 stars, because I found the prose to be a bit simplistic.  While I respect terse and concise writing, the writing seemed a bit facile at times.  Matt Hilton is a competent writer, but I feel that his voice could be more distinctive and as a result, show the added complexities of a man like Hunter. While Hunter might seem like a simple man, there is an underlying thought process that members of the IDTCAIHB club have that is worthy of exploring. And this story deals with some heavy events. Yes, this is an action/adventure book, so the goal is not deep character exploration. But that doesn't mean that a little sprinkled in amongst the butt-kicking scenes would go amiss.

I have found that many action/adventure books don't effectively convey a romantic relationship. This is true of Slash and Burn.  The embryonic emotional bond between Hunter and Kate went from 0 to 60 in too fast a time, and I couldn't quite buy into it.  I would have preferred if the author either kept it light or used the page scenes more effectively to build romantic tension.  Not enough to turn off romance hating readers, but enough to be believable.

The villains are not fluffy bunnies. Nope, they are varying degrees of morally bankrupt to seriously crazy. The Bolan twins are in a class all by themselves, really. I wasn't sure where the author was going, but the early pages of this book set up a suspenseful set of events that helps to drive the plot along.  Huffman is the type of sociopath that seems more socially acceptable than vicious psychopaths like the Bolan twins, but I actually feel he's worse, because of the deep rot concealed under his smooth, handsome, sharply-dressed exterior.  There are a few disposable villains that I feel could have been given more depth, since I don't like when an author sets up characters just to get killed off, aka Redshirts, to the Trekkies.  That might work on an episodic TV show, but not so well in a novel.  In general, I think the characterization could have used more development, and that's a major issue with this novel, along with the simplistic writing tone.

Readers looking for an escapist action/adventure novel with a IDTCAIHB kind of hero might consider adding Joe Hunter to their list of potential readers.  I think that Reacher, Pike and Nate Garrett's books are better written, but this was a good read, and I did like Hunter. He's worth adding to my action/adventure reading list. 

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Intangible Dream by Patricia Wilson

Intangible Dream (Harlequin Presents, No 11578)Intangible Dream by Patricia Wilson

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Intangible Dream is the kind of Harlequin Presents that old-school fans will enjoy.  Despite the lack of descriptive love scenes, there is plenty of passion in this novel.  And enough true love to make a diehard romantic sigh when they finish the last sentence.

It has a strong, fascinating hero who's pretty much obsessed with the heroine.  Readers who love heroes who are stone cold in love with the heroine will find this book very romantic and James irresistible.  Wilson maintains the tension of the reader sensing the hero's feelings, although we don't get his point of view.  You feel like Gemma has underestimated his feelings for her, even though you don't find out how much until later on. Despite that, he conveys just enough and says enough to make it clear that he's crazy about Gemma.  While Gemma puts up quite a fight against falling in love with James and into his plans for her, I could understand her reasons, even though I knew just how crazy James was about her.  She was a bit too hurtful at times, although I think it was because she felt like she was a mouse caught in the lion's paws, out of self-defense.

Gemma has a sweet shyness and awkwardness about that I found really appealing.  I could definitely see myself in her shoes, especially when I was younger.  I am sure I would feel a bit overwhelmed by James' powerful personality, especially if I was youngish and very sheltered by an overprotective father (she's a very sheltered 24-yr-old) .  The scenes in which James teases Gemma and draws her out of her shell are really appealing.  They have a warmth and made me smile.  Some readers don't care for young and innocent heroines, but they don't bother me, especially if their naivety makes sense and feels authentic.  While Gemma is definitely naive, she wants to gain some agency in her life, and she has a lot of courage considering.  After a life of being in a gilded cage with her dad, she doesn't want to change it to a gold cage as James' trophy wife.  When she realizes his love is genuine and that she feels the same, that makes a big difference to her, and it shows in the denouement.

I think this might be one of my favorites by this author so far. I think James is a Class A Stalkerific hero (shows the possessive/jealous/obsessed traits I find a guilty pleasure, but not in a really psycho way that's too disturbing).  I also liked Gemma a lot. They make a good couple and they made me root for things to work out for them.  I recommend this to fans of the older Harlequin Presents, and for any fan of stalkerific romance novel heroes.

Overall rating: 4.5/5.0 stars.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Baltimore, Volume 3: A Passing Stranger and Other Stories by Mike Mignola/Christopher Golden

Baltimore, Vol. 3: A Passing Stranger and Other StoriesBaltimore, Vol. 3: A Passing Stranger and Other Stories by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good tertiary addition to the Baltimore graphic novel series.  Readers who love classic horror fiction can't help but enjoy this series, and this one just cements the classic horror sensibility of the work by Mignola and Golden.  Forgive the pun, but they are a bit of a Golden Team for me.  I think their writing is seamless where I can't figure out which part Mignola wrote and what was written by Golden. The artwork is sober and dark in color, matching the unrelenting darkness of the literary tone of the stories.  Baltimore is a lone hunter who travels with one goal in mind: finding Haigus, the vampire who turned him and destroyed his family. Along the way, he will destroy evil he encounters. His relationship with God is complicated. He still calls him Lord, but he has a palpable anger towards Him. Baltimore seethes with it. He shakes his fists at God, but doesn't curse him. He only asks that he be left alone to seek his vengeance. To my mind, God manages for him to be in the right place at the right time, a fierce warrior against darkness and evil creatures of all kinds.  I am not saying I like an invincible hero all the time, but I appreciate how Baltimore always ends up in tight spots where I would expect him to be a goner, but he manages to survive, even if he adds a few more scars to the landscape of his body and face.

It's hard to rate this as a good book, in the sense that it's not at all feel-good.  It's very depressing in a lot of ways. The vampire plague has left destruction in every place, and all manner of foul creatures prey on the humans who manage to survive the plague and aren't turned into vampires.  So, no, it's not an uplifting read. However, the writing and the artwork are beautiful and has a penetrating effect on me as I read.  An excellent example of how successful the graphic novel medium can be for storytelling.  And since I don't get to read much Gothic/classic horror, lately, it satisfies my palate for the stories in a quick reading format, and the art-lover/artist in me.

I'm ever so grateful that I am able to get this from my library. These volumes would cost a pretty penny to buy new.

So, yes, I do recommend it to readers who aren't averse to a dark read.  It's violent and at times visceral, but not at all over the top or graphic.  As I said earlier in the review, it has the Gothic and Classic horror sensibility that any fans of 18th-early 20th century horror will appreciate. 

Four well-deserved stars.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Forbidden Seduction by Sara Wood

Forbidden Seduction (Harlequin Presents, # 1952)Forbidden Seduction by Sara Wood

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

This was kinda different.  The heroine gets fooled into a bogus marriage by a sociopathic Sicilian, and finds out from his brother that he was already married since he was nineteen.  It turns out his wife has been sabotaging Debbie and her mom's sandwich business to get revenge.  Debbie finds all this out from a coincidence when Luciano buys the bank where she delivers sandwiches through a service contract. 

I liked that Debbie really was a working class girl.  I can imagine her with an East Enders accent.  It was a matter of suspending belief that she truly had gotten fooled into a bogus marriage and it didn't come up.  I don't know how easy it is for a foreigner to get married in England when he's already married. I'm guessing you couldn't do that very easily in the United States using your real name.  I'll allow that this was possible for the purposes of the story.  I feel that Debbie got over being betrayed and made into an involuntary bigamist/adulteress too easily. 

I didn't quite get why Debbie was determined to go to the funeral in Sicily when she already knew her so-called husband was a lying sack of you know what, and she took her son. I felt that was extremely naive of her, despite being warned by Luciano.  She said she wanted to pay her respects.  I think that was just a plot device to get the story moved to Sicily.  The rest of the story is Debbie and Luciano owning up to their feelings, and that was sweet. Luciano is such a lovely guy. Considerate and caring, despite the great wrongs perpetrated against him. 

I think the best part of this book is that both leads are very likable and kind people who were taken advantage of by the dead bigamist husband and his family.  Their characters appealed to me. I think the melodrama about Luciano's Sicilian family is to be expected for a Harlequin Presents book, but I think that the resolution on their threat towards Debbie and her son Stefano was anticlimatic.  I would have liked a more dramatic on-screen confrontation, but maybe that's just the dramahound in me.

This is pretty good.  So, 3.5/5.0 stars.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hellboy Volume 2: Wake the Devil by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 2: Wake the Devil (Hellboy, #2)Hellboy, Vol. 2: Wake the Devil by Mike Mignola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This second volume in the Hellboy series is menacing and intensely creepy. People familiar with the first film by Guillermo Del Toro about Hellboy will recognize some elements of the story, but a good bit of the story was also adapted to the animated film "Blood and Iron." I think that as dark as both film adaptations are, the source material is moreso.

Hellboy managed to overcome his origins through sheer force of his self-determined will in Volume 1, Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction. He is challenged yet again, because forces of evil want him to take his role as the bringer of the apocalypse. Back to cause more trouble is the spirit of Rasputin and his cadre of Nazi devotees. In this volume, their plan is to gain control of the remains of notorious vampire Vladimir Giurescu and use his vampiric nature to create a super-army to help bring on Ragnarok. Rasputin has a grander final plan in mind that gets his group even closer to the desired end-time apocalypse. When Giurescu's remains are stolen from a museum in New York after the murder of its curator (a man with past Nazi connections), The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense sends small teams in various directions to investigate and eliminate this threat, with tragic results.

Mignola mixes in a surprising amount of folklore and mythological traditions, from Eastern European vampire lore, to the Greek mythology of Hecate, not to mention some Russian origin Baga Yaga elements. It works very well. Let's not forget a bit of Lovecraft thrown in. I can tell you my stomach was fluttering as I read this story. There is something deeply creepy about the characters who truly believe in their dark plans for humanity and the world, that they would have so many followers who fully ascribed to such perverse beliefs. While intellectually we know that Hellboy is practically invincible, the triumph of good does not feel like a guarantee.

The artwork is beautiful as always, the colors mainly confined to a mix of red, tan, black, and gray. It might seem monochromatic, but it works very well for this book. There is an appreciated harmony between the script and dialogue and the artwork, making for excellent storytelling.

While I found this graphic novel very unnerving, I can't deny its brilliance. Dark folklore with a good dose of horror, classic and cosmic in a congruous final product makes for an appealing graphic novel for fans of these genres.

If you've watched the Hellboy movies, I highly recommend checking out the graphic novels.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pretender to the Throne by Maisey Yates

Pretender to the Throne (Call of Duty, #3)Pretender to the Throne by Maisey Yates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maisey Yates takes the Beauty and the Beast story and twists it on its side with this book. Is the heroine the beast due to her unsightly scars, or is the gorgeous prince with his decadent lifestyle really the beast?

Disclaimer: I didn't put this review in spoiler tags, although there might be some borderline spoilerish elements. I endeavored not to give too much away, that wasn't necessary to expressing my thoughts of the book.

As I read this novel, it struck me that this is a very serious book. I didn't feel much levity, not that I always expect it, but it was noticeably lacking. Layna and Xander have some serious hurts in their past and their present situations. Xander went off the rails big time and the author wasn't afraid to keep it real in describing Xander's depredations. No Xander did it all in his checkered past (recent and distant). He was notoriously promiscuous to the degree that he doesn't even know how many women he's slept with (and doesn't even remember some of them), abused drugs, and was a hard drinker. In my mind I couldn't help wonder how healthy his liver is. I have alcoholics in my family on both sides, and through them I have seen the effects of long-term alcohol abuse on a person. I was glad that Layna doesn't let him off the hook when she agrees to marry him. She demands fidelity from him, and I was so glad that she required that he get STD tested. It was judicious, considering the circumstances. As for Layna's scarring, it's not just confined to a thin line that barely disfigures her face. She has significant scarring and the tabloids/newspapers say some truly awful things about her. That part was heartbreaking. I could completely understand her fears about going back to the public life she escaped from ten years ago. Going from a shallow, spoiled socialite with impeccable looks to a scarred woman in her near to mid-thirties who is marrying a good-looking future king would be heart-wrenching for any woman. Even with her training that vanity has no place in her life from the convent, that was difficult to weather. Although Xander is clearly the worse bargain, they make it seem like Xander is being altruistic in honoring his promises and marrying Layna.

Yates definitely brings the reality to what seems like a storyline straight out of the fairy tales. I can't say I would be eager to marry Xander with his abuses on his body (and it's not out of judgmentalism, but because you can't just click a finger and erase the effects of such a lifestyle from his body). And I think that it's clear that Xander has a ways to go before he breaks fifteen years of bad habits. I think this is evident when they are first intimate. Xander's lovemaking style while accomplished, does show a certain degree of selfishness and callousness about sex. He doesn't understand why Layna is conflicted about the experience, even though she enjoyed it. This is telling and I think realistic for a man who has spent fifteen years sleeping around with random women he meets as he frequents the casinos where he parties and makes his living gambling. I also liked how Xander's perception of Layna changes. He never thinks she's ugly, but he sees the scars through a harsher lens initially. As he falls in love with her, the scars become a part of her, and he loves the character of her features, because that's who she is. They cease to stand out to him.

Layna isn't portrayed as a perfectly good, pure woman either (other than what she appears to be on the surface). While she retired to a convent for ten years, her actions did have a certain degree of self-motivation. The convent was an escape, although she does realize how much she loves helping others and that her faith in God is real to her, in the process. At the root, it is running away, from the exposure she suffered as Xander's rejected fiance who was horribly scarred by an angry protestor, and also from her own emotional breakdown.

Yes, as I wrote earlier, this is a very serious book. Despite the fact that one would consider this storyline fertile ground for a dramatic, glossy style Harlequin Presents, there is a deep emotional core to this book that refuses to allow the reader to dismiss this book as a light read.

I gave this four stars because it was a intense, layered, well-written, and emotional novel, and I think that Yates handled this dicey subject matter very well.

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